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The Upstart

On Batman Begins' better half.

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p>In 1989, Tim Burton astonished and excited a new generation of comic-book fans (and the moviegoing public in general) with his stylish and striking reinvention of the character of Batman. His was a dark and intense hero, played with equal parts restraint and aplomb by typically comedic Michael Keaton. Batman Returns elaborated on Burton's dark visions with more fun and more thrills. Those were good Bat-days. But then Joel Schumacher came along to malign the next two films, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, and by 1997, the franchise looked dead in the water.

Enter the 21st century. Accordingly, we need a hero for the times, which, if you haven't been reading the paper, are dark and uncertain. Our government has not been this untrustworthy since Nixon, and there are "evildoers" hiding behind every foreign corner.

As Batman Begins er, begins, we are introduced to young Bruce Wayne, son and heir to Gotham City's humanitarian billionaire Thomas Wayne. We see Bruce endure two childhood traumas: first, a fall into a well that becomes a harrowing bat attack, and then the murder of his parents at the hands of a mugger (just the kind of impoverished soul that the good Thomas Wayne was devoting his money toward helping).

Fast forward a few years. Bruce has grown up to be played by steely Christian Bale and is a prisoner in an unnamed Asian country's torture camp. He is there by choice, to learn the limits of human fear and the extent to which darkness will rule a man's heart. While there, he is mentored by a league of mercenaries, led by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), and is taught the ways of combat and discipline. When he refuses to kill an enemy of the league, they turn on him. He escapes -- but not without the warning that his compassion will one day undo him.

When Bruce returns to Gotham, he assumes his rightful place as the unofficial prince of the city -- a playboy billionaire with the world as his oyster. By day, that is. By night, he studies the slimy workings of the corrupt city and devises a means by which he can continue his father's work to better its people. He must be more than a man; he must be a symbol. A symbol of fear -- his fear. A bat.

That's the film's thrilling first half. What follows is a slightly muted, slightly anticlimactic, slightly lessened second half. Wayne becomes Batman and works to stop the city-conquering plans of mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and the evil psychiatrist-turned-villain, the Scarecrow (erotically dire Cillian Murphy). We are introduced, along with the villains, to the elements by which we recognize and appreciate Batman and his legend: the cape, the cowl, the gadgets, the Bat Signal, the Batmobile. Each element is familiar and, when tweaked, made more real than in previous incarnations. This is not your older brother's Batman. This is new.

Once the introductions are made, the film devolves a bit. The thrilling hand-to-hand combats of Bruce's prison training water down when transferred to the streets of Gotham. The Scarecrow is fascinating when brought into the story yet somehow fades away without resolution. Likewise Falcone. Likewise the nefarious plot (to turn all of Gotham mad). Likewise Ducard's revenge and comeuppance. The latter takes place on a speeding monorail, and like all of the previously mentioned details, made me long for that character's earlier moments. There was an attention to detail in that first half that seems taken for granted in the second.

Did I mention that there's no sex? I hear there's an R-rated version (this one is PG-13) out there with some Christian Bale/Katie Holmes (she plays assistant D.A. and childhood pal Rachel Dawes) sex in it, but it was not released so that the younger market would be tapped. Alas. And alas, Katie Holmes looks 12 when trying to posture as a high-powered city attorney. At least Michael Caine (as butler Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) are on hand to lend some class and weight.

Did I mention that the first half was great? That the second half does not match or improve upon the first does not diminish this film as an accomplishment: a resurrection of a fallen film franchise and an anti-hero for the 21st century. At this film's end, another Batman nemesis is alluded to, and I imagine that by the time the Bale Batman encounters his Joker, this series will have ironed any wrinkles from the cape.

REVIEW by Bo list

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